Celebrating and Sharing the Gift: Reflections on Jacob, Israel's Ancestor
By Ralph W. Klein
To do evangelism is to speak or embody to other people the gracious message of God; it is to celebrate and to share the gift. Generosity pervades this theme: God's generosity in giving us the gift, and our own generosity in acknowledging and celebrating the giver, and in handing on the gift by word or deed to those all around us.
We hold evangelism conferences today because we have grown shy, or complacent or even callous about sharing that gift. All too often we confuse advertising with sharing, numerical growth with conversion, or that which we possess with the gift. When we have conferences or workshops that include segments about celebrating and sharing the gift with African-American, Asian, Hispanic, gay and lesbian, and Native American communities, we are admitting that too often the church's evangelism has been only the perpetuation of our culture, our race, our lifestyle, and our denomination. We and the people of our parishes need training in speaking the good news and in ministering within a culture other than our own if we are to see and celebrate the gifts others have, and if our words and actions are going to make any sense at all to them. But most of all we need to receive the gift as gift, to see how the words and actions of God flood in upon us in unexpected and undeserved ways that are God's good news for our desperate situations. Before we can confess the gift for others, we need to experience again the gospel as a fresh and unexpected gift. It is the gift that will empower and motivate us; it is the gift that will send us to speak and embody that gift to others.
To learn what the gift is, and the varieties of shapes in which it comes, I invite you to study with me three accounts of Jacob in the book of Genesis: his dream at Bethel (Genesis 28), his wrestling with God at Penuel (Genesis 32), and his reunion with his brother Esau (Genesis 33). Each of these accounts focuses on what Samuel Terrien has described as the elusive presence of God. The presence of God is elusive because it eludes all our attempts to make it routine, predictable, or controllable. Each story exposes us to unique aspects of the gift, unique qualifies of the receiver, and unique features in the interface between gift and receiver. Jacob at Bethel
On Jacob's trip from Beersheba to Haran, he stopped at sunset at the old sanctuary of Bethel. After turning a rock from the place into a makeshift pillow, he lay down and had a wonderful dream filled with both pictures and words. What he saw depicted was a ladder, or better, a ramp or staircase. One end was planted on the ground; the other end reached up into the sky. Standing beside Jacob was Yahweh (Gen 28:13)--or was he seated at the top of staircase (Gen 28:12)? In any case, Yahweh repeated to Jacob the ancestral promise with its twin gifts: the gift of the land and the gift of multiple descendants. These descendants of Jacob would spread to every comer of the land: west, east, north, and south. Moreover, all the families of the earth-all nations!-would obtain a blessing through Jacob and his descendants.
Hans Walter Wolff writes: "Israel intermingles with the nations: this is the manner by which Yahweh himself brings about fulfillment of the blessing.... The subsequent Jacob-Laban cycle brings further illustrations. Now the Aramean Laban confesses to Jacob, in 30:27,'l have learned that Yahweh has blessed me because of you.' In verse 31 Jacob takes up the catch-word: 'You had little before I came... and Yahweh has blessed you since I have been here.' This time the blessing comes to the nations in the abundance of herds; with his skill as a shepherd Jacob effects a blessing among the Arameans.... At the end there exists here, too, a covenant of peace between Jacob and Laban (31:51f.)" (The Vitality of Old Testament Traditions, 58-59). Jacob, God's elect child, brings material blessings to his most bitter rival.
The promise continues: "I will be with you." Can you imagine a more simple or profound way to express the gift? That Wholly Other One, whom we call God, whose moral excellence stands in sharp contrast to Jacob's sin and our own, promises divine accompaniment. There can be no criticism, no alienation, if God goes along on Jacob's trip, with acceptance and providence. Yes, God will maintain this care for Jacob-I will keep you and I will bring you back to this land. God will not abandon him until God accomplishes everything promised to all the ancestors.
When Jacob woke up he was astonished. He had not known that Yahweh would be in this place; here he had experienced the terrifying and fascinating mystery. He celebrated this gift with well-known words: "This is nothing but the house of God and the gate of heaven." His former pillow became a standing stone, on which he poured oil. He changed the name of this place to mark its changed status: now it would be called Bethel-house of God; formerly it was called Luz.
Jacob's dedication of this site was his celebration of the gift. And then he promised to share: he made a vow that if God would protect him, give him food and clothing, and return him safely home, then Yahweh would be his God and he would tithe everything given to him by God. His vow repeats for himself and for us the substance of God's own promise to him.
How do we interpret such a text? We could see it as a collection of etiologies, that is, stories told to explain how certain customs arose and why they were considered binding on readers of the story. Thus, this story states that Bethel, one of two great sanctuaries of the Northern kingdom, was a worship site for Jacob/Israel, the great ancestor of the faith, after whom the people Israel is named. Some have seen Jacob's anointing of the stone as the initiation of a rite later observed at the Bethel sanctuary. Still others claim that this story supports payment of a tithe to the Bethel sanctuary, a stewardship plan mentioned centuries later by the great prophet Amos (4:4). The etiology of all etiologies, of course, is the one which explains how the site came to be called Bethel in the first place. These etiologies may explain in part why the story was remembered and retold over the centuries in Israel, but these etiologies are details of interpretation, not the mother lode.
Many scholars see here a mixture of the old Pentateuchal sources J and E, with J claiming vv. 10-11a, 13 -16, and 19a and E vv. 11b-12, 17-18, 20-21 a, and 22. There may be truth here as well, though recent students of the Pentateuch are becoming increasingly wary of breaking up literary paragraphs into hypothetical sources. Are we to understand the contrast between the names Yahweh and Elohim and between Yahweh's standing directly by Jacob and his enthronement at the top of a staircase as different details from separate sources, or as contrasting nuances in a single account? Whatever its pre history in oral tradition or as parallel sources, the story is now related is a whole.
In this final form of the text we see Jacob experiencing the elusive presence of God. He meets him eerily, in a dream, and sees an alternative picture of God that emphasizes his transcendence and the mediating role of angels. This God gives him promises germane to the life of an ancient peasant: land, descendants, protection, re- turn to his homeland, not to mention a commission to share his blessing with all the families of the earth.
In this final form, and even in its earlier context in J, this Jacob is something other than a hero of the faith: he is a deceiver, who cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance and who was running for his life be- cause of the furor in his family of origin when he stopped off at Bethel. He was the kind of person most despised in our families and in our congregations, greedily grasping for all he could get of his father's will. Only his mother was able to save his life and send him to seek refuge with her brother Laban. She urged him to stay there until Esau would cool off. Jacob is no Pietist, praying himself to sleep, modeling receptivity to- ward divine revelation. What he saw and heard was sheer undeserved gift. He responded to this gift by celebrating it and by erecting a pillar and promising to build a new temple. He also promised to share his gift by committing himself financially to the sanctuary and by announcing that this spot where he had experienced God was the house of God and the gate of heaven.
Jacob saw and heard God-and lived to tell others about it. In appearing to him, God appeared to one who was totally undeserving. This appearance empowered him to be faithful and brought about a complete change of heart. What he spoke at Bethel he embodied in Syria. His presence with his corrupt father-in-law Laban brought with it great prosperity for his wife's family of origin. Both his speech at Bethel and his benefactions in Syria were the word of God communicated to others. He modeled the missionary role.
Genesis 32: Jacob at Peniel
Read again this wonderful story:
During the night Jacob got up, took his two wives, his two concubines, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream; he sent across all he had.
Jacob was left by himself, and a "human figure" wrestled with him until the break of day. When this person saw that he was unable to win, he touched the socket of Jacob's thigh-joint, and the socket of his thigh-joint was dislocated as he wrestled with the "human figure."
The "human figure" said, "Let me go for dawn is breaking."
Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
The "human figure" asked him, "What is your name?"
He said, "Jacob."
The "human figure" responded, "No longer shall your name be pronounced Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with human beings, and you have won."
Jacob then insisted, "Tell me your name."
He answered, "Why do you ask for my name?" Still he blessed him there.
Jacob called the name of that place Peniel, for he thought, "I have seen God face to face, and my life has been spared."
The sun rose for him as he passed Penuel. He was limping because of his thigh. That is why the Israelites to this day do not eat the sinew of the socket of the thigh-joint because the human one had struck Jacob on that sinew. (Gen 32:22-32)
This text is eerie. Here we have an- other story that takes place at or near a sanctuary, this time a place called Penuel, meaning "face of God." Jacob, the ancestor of Israel, finds himself alone with a fierce antagonist with whom he wrestles all night long. Is this antagonist a human being, as v. 25 seems to say, or is this antagonist the God Yahweh, as we might conclude from the fact that he extends a blessing to Jacob and sovereignly refuses to disclose his own name. Even the interpretation of the name Israel by the antagonist hints at the divine character of the antagonist: "You have
wrestled with God-with me!-and with human beings, and you have won."
But something seems wrong from a historical perspective in concluding that this antagonist is God. Divine-human wrestling matches are not likely to end in draws or in the seeming victory of the human partner. Moreover, the antagonist feels compelled to get away at sun-up, almost as if he could not stand the light of day. He also seems to be a dirty fighter, who dislocated the hip of Jacob when he could not get away from his grasp. These eerie or even demonic characteristics have persuaded many that the antagonist in this story at some earlier point in the tradition was a demon, who guarded the ford of the river Jabbok, could not stand the full disclosure of daylight, was nearly bested by Jacob, but who finally won a victory by magically throwing Jacob's hip out of joint. The story is also shot through with etiological elements, the kind of short narrative that answers the childlike question "Why?"
--Why do we Israelites not eat the sciatic nerve (nervus ischiadicus) of animals, a taboo not noted elsewhere in Scripture? Answer: Because that nerve had been damaged in an eerie, nocturnal battle.
--Why was it that our great ancestor Jacob, who might be imagined as a perfect specimen of the human race, was remembered as having a disabling limp? Answer: That was because his hip was severely damaged in the process of a wrestling match with a human-demon-deity.
--Why is it that we are called Israel, when our most important ancestor was named Jacob? And what does that name mean anyway? Answer: Jacob became Israel by the grace of the mysterious, wrestling stranger, who went on to interpret the name Israel as signifying that Jacob had wrestled with God and with human beings and had won. Significantly, Jacob became Israel as he reentered the Holy Land at the Jabbok river. The land is never incidental to Israel's existence or self-understanding.
--Finally, why does the famous Trans-Jordanian cultic site have a name like Penuel (face of God), and how did this site get linked to our own heritage? Answer- The place became Penuel or Peniel because Jacob renamed the site after his eerie encounter with the deity: I have seen God "face to face" and yet my life has been spared. Never mind that Exod 33:20 cites a divine oracle that no one can see the face of God and live. Never mind that Moses was al- lowed to see only God's back parts and not his face (Exod 33:21-23). Both Bethel and Penuel were important worship sites for Israel because they had played important roles in the life of Jacob.
But neither a strategy of historical re- construction, that sees this story as a dim memory of a fight between Jacob and a river hag, nor an explanation of the etiological trivia covers all the interpretive bases. The story can also be seen as a reflection on the relative supremacy of God and of the subordinate yet heroic role of Jacob, as a study of the three conversational exchanges will make clear.
In the first exchange, Jacob is clearly the stronger: The "human figure" said, "Let me go for dawn is breaking." Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." Jacob not only declines the desperate demand of his antagonist; he also makes his counter proposal: There will be freedom for the antagonist only if he blesses Jacob. Jacob had extorted a blessing from his father, and now he uses the desperate situation of his antagonist to seek an additional blessing.
In the second conversational exchange, the antagonist is clearly stronger: The "human figure" asked Jacob, "What is your name?" He said, "Jacob." The "human figure" responded, "No longer shall your name be pronounced Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with human beings, and you have won." The one who gives a name is clearly superior, yet the antagonist acknowledges the heroic dimensions of Jacob's nocturnal battle: he had wrestled with God and humans and "won." Jacob may have hoped for the blessing of more children or more material goods; instead he received a new identity as Israel.
The third conversational exchange complicates our assessment of who was the victor: Jacob, who initiates this conversation, then insisted, "Tell me your name." The antagonist answered, "Why do you ask for my name?" Still he blessed him there. The antagonist's indignant question, "Why do you ask for my name?" is a none too subtle refusal to disclose his name. Just as the angel refused to disclose its name to Manoah, Samson's father (Judg 13:17-18), so the divine figure here affirms that God is not someone to be controlled, manipulated, or pushed around even by a strong ancestor figure. The name Yahweh is not revealed until the time of Moses. But the resolution to the contest between Jacob and the antagonist is complicated: "Still he [the antagonist] blessed him [Jacob] there." Jacob was not cursed. Rather, he emerged from this encounter vindicated or blessed. As the subsequent account will make clear, he lives with new power and new freedom, but also with new weakness-he limps for- ever after. Frederick Buechner has called this event The Magnificent Defeat. Perhaps the strength of Jacob is made perfect in this weakness.
What are we to make of this encounter with the gift? "How awesome is this place" had been Jacob's appraisal at Bethel. How even more awesome is this wrestling match with a supernatural figure. Jacob had stepped on dangerous territory: he had seen God face to face, and yet lived to tell about it
He lived to tell about it, to celebrate it and to share it. And yet we encounter here a problem that also has modem repercussions. Our deepest encounter with God is sometimes almost ineffable, almost inexpressible. We can celebrate it and share it, but it may not be the encounter with God that others will find meaningful. How important this is in cross-cultural communication, in witnessing among a community alien from our own. What seems most real and most impressive to us may be so colored by our cultural parochialism that others will see in it only our claim to the numinous, our impressive experience, and not their own. Those who recited this tradition and brought it to its present form tried to bring it closer to an orthodox standard. They talked not of an antagonistic river demon, but of a man who wrestled with Jacob, or they identified the antagonist with Godself. We all are uncomfortable with numinous encounters that are unpredictable or not carefully protected by the familiar contours of revelation.
The Jacob of this account at Penuel is not the sneak thief running for his life after cheating his brother, as was the Jacob at Bethel. He is a mature figure, returning home after 21 years, after his mother apparently had died, and after he had survived the wily cheating of his uncle and father-in-law Laban. He is the importunate Jacob, holding onto the gift, demanding a blessing, keeping a strong lock on his antagonist. His prevailing over the antagonist is defeat as well as victory. Interpreters have often seen Jacob's wrestling as a model of the righteous pray-er. The prophet Hosea remarked: He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor. (Hos 12:4a).
The apocryphal book of Wisdom observes: When a righteous man (Jacob) fled his brother's wrath, Wisdom guided him on straight paths... she kept him safe from those who lay in wait for him; in his arduous contest she gave him the victory, so that he might learn that godliness is more powerful than anything. (Wis 10:10-12).
Without question the character of Jacob is transformed through this event. Earlier he had deceived his father and cheated his brother; he had been locked in a dog-eat- dog struggle with his equally crafty father-in-law. After this event he sues for peace with Esau (Genesis 33) and condemns his sons Simeon and Levi for treating the in- habitants of Shechem violently andunfaith- fully (Genesis 34). This encounter with God resulted in radical transformation.
Genesis 33: Esau as the face of God
The third encounter with God in the Jacob stories follows immediately after the struggle at Penuel in the story of Jacob's reconciliation with Esau. While the first encounter had happened during a dream and the second at night, the third encounter takes place in broad daylight. No sooner had Jacob left Penuel than he caught sight of Esau coming with 400 men. Jacob had two wives, two concubines, and II sons and I daughter, according to the context. These 17 people of Jacob were outnumbered 23.5 to I by the people of Esau, and all but one person in Jacob's entourage was a female or a child. Jacob prepared for the worst.
At the front of his company he placed his two concubines with their children; next came Leah with her 7 children; last of all came his favorite Rachel, with their son Joseph. Benjamin had not yet been born. If the encounter with Esau would go badly, Rachel and Joseph would be the last to be lost.
Jacob d id not hide out at the rear. Rather, he went in front of his entourage and bowed himself to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. Esau's reaction was unpredictable and dramatic: Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, fell on his neck, and kissed him. Both cried. "Who are all these people with you?" Esau asked. "The children whom God has graciously granted me," Jacob responded. Claus Westermann notes that his children were not merely the blessing of the creator; they were signs of God's gracious presence. God's favor upon Jacob had determined what had happened to him in the last twenty-one years.
After Jacob did his obeisance, the concubines and their children drew near and bowed low, as did Leah and her children, and finally also Rachel and Joseph. "What is the purpose of all this band of people?" Esau demanded. "To find favor in your eyes," was the reply. Esau responded generously: "I have plenty, my brother. You keep whatever is yours.
These words come from the mouth of a wounded brother. It was Esau, after all, who had lost out on the inheritance through the stealth of Rebekah and Jacob. Esau had pitifully asked his father at that time, "Have you not reserved a blessing for me?" (Gen 27:36). And the only blessing he had received from Isaac might as well have been a curse: Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother....(Gen 27:39-40)
Esau had hated Jacob then and had vowed to kill him as soon as his father had died. But now Esau responded generously: "I have plenty, my brother. You keep whatever is yours." Esau did not want a handout, a bribe, charity, or welfare. Jacob approached Esau with political propriety, and Esau said, "I don't need anything." Jacob had coveted these gifts so much that he had muscled his way into sole possession of them. Now when he is willing to share them, his brother brushes them off as un- needed.
Jacob was not willing to settle for such unilateral generosity. "Since I have found favor in your eyes, please accept my present. In seeing your face it has been like seeing the face of God since you have received me with such generosity."
For Jacob seeing the face of his generous and forgiving brother was like seeing the face of God. He had expected hostility and arranged his family for the worst possible disaster. He was met with forgiveness and acceptance. When Jacob had earlier sent a series of gifts to Esau, he expressed the hope he would get to see Esau's face and that Esau might accept Jacob's face favor- ably (Gen 32:1-21). He had not imagined what seeing the face of Esau would mean. The moment of reconciliation with Esau- traditional father of the Edomites, that most hated of peoples in most Old Testament traditions-that moment of reconciliation with Esau was like seeing the face of God. Jacob had greeted Esau ceremoniously, with all the protocol of appearing at a royal hearing: he bowed down seven times, he used self-deprecating forms of speech, and he presented gifts of homage. His formal actions surround and contrast with the more forthright and spontaneous actions of Esau, who merely greeted Jacob as a long-lost brother. Which of the two showed love? Which of the two demonstrated reconciliation? The formality of Jacob seems cold and aloof in contrast with the true, heart-felt love of Esau. By his generosity Esau revealed something new about God.
Implications for our Evangelism
What is the gift we celebrate and share? That is the question each evangelist must ask. Is it the God of orthodoxy, properly enthroned at a great distance, at the top of a mighty staircase, with angels shuttling back and forth in proper liturgical form and vestment, and with God repeating the promises of land, children, and providence to the poor, miserable, run-away sinner, who is Jacob or you and I? Yes, that is the way the gift comes to many of us. It came to us in traditional categories, in law and gospel, to people trained within the cultural climate of Christendom. It is a meaningful and powerful gift. It is the one that has nurtured and sustained me. It is the gift celebrated and shared in our liturgy and our creeds. It is the controlling vision, the canonical touchstone, the story we must teach our children. But it is not the only gift.
What is the gift we celebrate and share? Is it the unconventional and undocumentable revelation of God, in unusual and uncomfortable guise, with questionable pedigree, like the human-demon-angel-God who wrestled with Jacob? For Jacob and his heirs this moment disclosed so clearly the face of God that he named the site "face of God" or Penuel. For some this might seem like a theology of glory rather than of the cross. It may well be that the Bible and the church have regarded such encounters warily and considered them dangerous and non- mainstream. And yet, for charismatics and evangelicals in our day, in countless ways and in untold numbers, they have learned that God loves them and cares for them and redeems them through Jesus Christ. They have learned this in ways that may never be our own, but whose validity for them-and for many among us-is no less sure that the ways in which God's love has become known among us.
What is the gift we celebrate and share? There is also mission in reverse, evangelism from the outsider, forgiveness from the once hate-filled but now generous Esau. Our missiologists urge upon us these days a spirit of hospitality and acceptance, a willingness and eagerness to learn from the two-thirds world and from cultures other than our own. The passion for inclusiveness in the ELCA is not so much because we have so much to give "them," but because "they" have so much to give us: different experiences, different ways to express and articulate the faith, different ways to display obedience, different ways to celebrate and share. The gift can come through an Edomite, from the abused, from the hated, from the despised, from those who have been ripped off by the establishment. They receive us so warmly. To encounter them is to encounter the face of God. To learn from other cultures is not to seek other Gods, but to learn more about our God from those who have experienced or discovered this God in separation from us or even when oppressed by us. This God is our God and can become so more and more. Jacob proceeded on his way after his reconciliation with Esau until he arrived at Shechem. There he set up an altar dedicated not to Qosh, god of the Edomites, but to El, the God of the people Israel. The God of tradition and of orthodoxy can become better known through the experiences and confession of those different from ourselves.
Genesis 33 represents Jacob confessing his sin and Esau absolving him, though neither brother talks about sin or forgiveness. To do mission is to speak and embody the message of God to others. In Jacob's gifts to Esau he practices restitution. Esau could have responded with hostility, anger,warfare-after all, he had 400 men, a 23.5 to 1 advantage.
Three words set the theme for this essay: gift, celebrate, and share.
I have suggested that focusing on the gift is the clue to renewed evangelism since that gift has the power to enable us to speak and embody the good news, and because that gift itself sends us. We do not do evangelism because the church says we should, or because our guilt forces us to. The old stories of Jacob demonstrate that the gift can come in a variety of ways, each appropriate to a given condition in life. Despite the variety of ways in which we experience the gift, our many voices lead to one great song.
Celebrate has a ring of joy to it, but it also connotes praise to God for the gift. But what happens when we praise God? I suppose God benefits from it, but when we praise God we announce God's benefactions to a narrower or wider community. Praise differs in this way from thanks. I can thank you for a gift one-to-one. When I praise you, when I celebrate your or God's goodness, I do that so that also others may hear.
And finally, the word share. Every religious experience is at root a missionary experience, an evangelistic experience. When one experiences God, one wants to let others know about it. We are so dazzled by the market mentality that we often con- fuse sharing with the results of sharing, we confuse sharing with church growth.
To paraphrase St. Paul (1 Cor 3:6): I want to celebrate and share the gift; I want to tell others about it and embody its implications for interpersonal and societal whole- ness in my life.
I trust God to give the increase.